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Opinion Elizabeth Warren: Here’s how we get broadband Internet to rural America

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO annual convention in Altoona, Iowa, on Aug. 21.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO annual convention in Altoona, Iowa, on Aug. 21. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
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Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate and is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Federal Communications Commission reports that a staggering 21.3 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband — no doubt an underestimate given the notorious loopholes in FCC reporting requirements. This is despite more than a decade of efforts by policymakers at the state and federal level to end the “digital divide” and deliver universal access to high-speed Internet.

This isn’t an accident. Blame Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Charter, which have maximized their profits at the expense of rural towns, cities, low-income communities and communities of color across the country.

These companies have deliberately restricted competition, kept prices high and used their armies of lobbyists to persuade state legislatures to ban towns and cities from building their own public networks. Meanwhile, the federal government has shoveled more than a billion in taxpayer dollars per year to private ISPs to expand broadband to remote areas, but these providers have done the bare minimum with these resources.

ISPs have been able to get away with fostering pseudo-monopolies because they spend a lot of money to keep the regulatory environment and the conversation surrounding it murky. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has been an effective agent for ISPs. He led the charge to dismantle net neutrality last year, and he has done everything in his power to stop municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure. He also attempted to gut the FCC’s Lifeline program, one of the few tools the federal government has to provide Internet to low-income consumers.

While the profit motives of ISPs have disproportionately harmed rural and low-income communities, urban and higher-income consumers have been adversely impacted, too.

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Horror stories starring giant Internet companies are practically universal. In the wealthiest country on the planet, we lag behind many other developed nations in connectivity and speed, while also paying more for that service. That’s why companies such as Comcast consistently rank as the United States’ most hated companies by consumers. When you eliminate a competitive market and replace it with regional monopolies or duopolies, providers have no incentive to improve their service.

In those rural communities where ISPs have delivered Internet access, consumers pay egregiously high rates for services that are far below the FCC’s own definition of high-speed Internet. And if they go over their allotted data, they get hit with additional charges.

Without a stable, high-speed Internet connection, it’s virtually impossible for a town to keep or recruit new businesses. Not having broadband at home creates a “homework gap” that makes it much harder for students to compete. For rural and low-income communities, lawmakers have prioritized increased funding for telemedicine as a way to lower health-care costs and reach isolated communities. But again, that isn’t an option without good Internet.

Enough is enough. As president, I would work to ensure every home in the United States has an affordable, broadband connection. I have a plan for a new public option for broadband Internet, carried out by a new Office of Broadband Access that would manage an $85 billion federal grant program. Only electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, tribes, cities, counties and other state subdivisions would be eligible for grants.

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The federal government would pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants. In exchange, applicants must offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area. Applicants would have to offer at least one plan with 100-megabits per second speeds and one discount Internet plan for low-income customers with a prepaid feature or a low monthly rate. The plan would also set aside $5 billion specifically for 100 percent federal grants to tribal nations to expand broadband access on Native American land.

Additionally, we would make it clear in federal statute that municipalities have the right to build their own networks, and I would appoint FCC commissioners who would restore net neutrality and make sure our government programs live up to the promise of universal service. We would also prohibit the range of sneaky maneuvers that giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage and drive up prices.

There is both a moral and an economic imperative to enact a public option for broadband. If we stay on our current trajectory, ISPs will continue to decide which communities succeed and which ones fail. We imperil the success of future generations, threaten our competitiveness on the global stage and risk further diaspora from towns and cities that are in dire need of economic turnaround.

Providing universal, public access to broadband won’t be easy. The ISPs aren’t interested in competition and will fight to keep the status quo. But this is a worthy cause. Together we can change outcomes for forgotten towns and cities across our country.

Read more:

Jem Spectar: Want to close America’s rural-urban divide? Digital infrastructure is the key.

Gary Abernathy: How rural America can grab a bigger megaphone

The Post’s View: Internet is a modern necessity, but some Americans don’t even have broadband

Ajit Pai and Maureen Ohlhausen: No, Republicans didn’t just strip away your Internet privacy rights

Mark Howell: Saving net neutrality, one house at a time

The political journey of Elizabeth Warren